Menus Subscribe Search
drug-conviction

(PHOTO: MATTHEW BENOIT/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Should a Drug Conviction Mean a Lifetime Ban on Welfare and Food Stamps?

• November 15, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: MATTHEW BENOIT/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new report from The Sentencing Project assesses the damage of a Clinton-era policy.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law an expansive set of reforms to the welfare system called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The policy’s most widely debated aspects dealt with limitations and requirements to two major public assistance programs, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF, cash assistance) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).

There was another lesser-known, barely-noticed aspect of the law, however—a product of the mid-’90s clamor for all politicos to be “tough on crime” and fight the “war on drugs.” That was the lifetime ban of federal benefits to anyone who had been convicted of a felony drug crime. And that small provision, argues a new report released by The Sentencing Project, has had a devastating impact ever since.

Women are by far the majority recipients of these two benefit programs, and the number of women in prison for drug offenses has been rising much faster in the past several decades than the number of men.

First, the authors of the report, Marc Mauer and Virginia McCalmont, took a tally of how many state legislatures had enforced the lifetime ban, and how many had modified it or rejected it when they enacted their versions of the law. They found that 37 states fully or partially enforce the lifetime ban on cash assistance, and 34 fully or partially enforce it on SNAP benefits. Modifications to the policy (many of which The Sentencing Project endorse) include allowing people to regain their benefits after going through drug treatment programs, or to keep their benefits if they are convicted of less-serious crimes like mere drug possession, rather than distribution.

Still, 12 states haven’t modified the policy, and so enforce a full, unequivocal lifetime on cash assistance after a drug conviction; nine states similarly have a full ban on SNAP benefits. Mauer and McCalmont calculated the number of people who have been affected by these bans from 1996 to 2011, and come up with an estimated 180,100 women.

The focus of this report is on women, because, the authors argue, women are quite disproportionately affected. Women are by far the majority recipients of these two benefit programs, and the number of women in prison for drug offenses has been rising much faster in the past several decades than the number of men. (See the full study for the sources of all of these stats.) “The combination of the high rate of women as SNAP and TANF recipients, along with the disproportionate effect of the drug war on women, has produced the skewed effects of the PRWORA ban,” write Mauer and McCalmont.

The ban has also had a disproportionate effect on people of color, they continue. They cite Department of Health and Human Services data showing that “whites, African Americans, and Latinos use drugs at roughly comparable rates…. But as of 2011, African Americans comprised 40.7 percent of prisoners in state prisons for drug crimes, while individuals of Hispanic origin made up another 21.2% of this population.”

In other words, the system is already skewed to punish people of color disproportionately. A lifetime ban on benefits that gets tacked on as a result of this disproportionate punishment only exacerbates the injustice. The authors write:

While the TANF ban does not target any demographic groups specifically, the dynamics of social class and the accompanying disparate racial effects of criminal justice policy and practice combine to produce highly disparate effects on women, children, and communities of color.

Supporters of the lifetime ban may counter with the argument that children aren’t unduly punished for the crimes of their parents under this policy. It’s true that families eligible for benefits still receive them even if the parents are banned from individual benefits. But, Mauer and McCalmont note, those benefits are reduced in size—so if a mother of two children has a drug conviction somewhere in her past, she will only receive benefits for the two children, and not for herself.

For a family struggling under the poverty line, that reduction makes a huge difference, as those benefits will of course be divided among the entire household. Add to that the fact that people with prior convictions of any kind often have trouble finding and keeping work and housing, which makes transitional benefits even more imperative. The authors take care to emphasize, in case they haven’t been strong enough in their condemnation of the full-ban policy, the unfortunate impact of all of this on the “children, who have committed no crime themselves.”

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.